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  James Knapp (1940–2001), by David Jones, 1988 James Knapp (1940–2001), by David Jones, 1988
Knapp, James [Jimmy] (1940–2001), trade unionist, was born on 29 September 1940 at Salisbury Place, Galston Road, Hurlford, Ayrshire, the son of James Knapp, general labourer, and his wife, Jeanie Gibb, née Fulton. After attending Hurlford primary school and Kilmarnock Academy, he joined British Railways as a signalman in 1955.

As a boy Knapp had attended a socialist Sunday school where key left-wing texts were studied, and it was scarcely a surprise that he quickly became involved in the railway trade-union movement. At eighteen he was subscriptions collector for the Hurlford branch of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR); three years later he was branch chairman, a position he retained when the Hurlford and Kilmarnock branches merged in 1965. He married Sylvia Florence Yeomans in the same year. They had one daughter, Fiona. Progressing up the NUR hierarchy, Knapp became secretary of the Glasgow and west Scotland district in 1970, and in 1972 was appointed as a full-time divisional officer based in London. There Knapp played a leading role in recruiting members from among London Transport workers. In 1981 he moved to a post at Unity House, the NUR's headquarters, but was thwarted in his attempt to become an assistant general secretary. While gaining solid support from local branches, he failed the required written examination: there were suspicions that the procedure had been rigged against him. Thus far, outside union circles at least, Knapp remained unknown.

The early 1980s were a turbulent time in railway industrial relations. British Rail managers clashed with the unions over the implementation of productivity initiatives and several damaging strikes ensued. On top of this, the NUR's general secretary, Sidney Weighell, was struggling to control the left wing of the union, strongly represented on the ruling executive committee. The situation came to a head in January 1983, when Weighell was forced out of office for failing to implement an NUR conference mandate over voting for seats on the Labour Party national executive. Knapp himself kept a low profile during the affair; indeed he was not even a member of the executive. None the less he benefited greatly. With the left running an effective campaign against Charlie Turnock, Weighell's favoured heir, Knapp gained 63 per cent of the vote and became general secretary in March 1983. The episode left a bitter taste. Weighell was unimpressed at both his treatment by the NUR and his replacement as leader. He was widely quoted as considering that his successor was ‘wet behind the ears’ and he questioned whether Knapp, who was only forty-two, would live up to expectations (Weighell, 168).

The climate in which Knapp took over was challenging, since Margaret Thatcher's government was both anti-railway and anti-trade union. An early task was to fight the widespread rail closures proposed in the Serpell report on railway finances, published shortly before Knapp's election. More serious was the miners' strike of 1984–5. Knapp and his union supported Arthur Scargill's National Union of Mineworkers by refusing to work coal trains. For the railway industry this sympathy action proved expensive, costing British Rail £70 million and the permanent loss of some traffic. By this time railway management had embarked upon a tougher industrial relations strategy. Backed by new legislation, the closed shop was withdrawn and there was more frequent resort to legal powers in order to thwart strike action.

In 1985 British Rail sought to extend driver-only operation of trains (DOO) by imposition rather than negotiation. Knapp was incensed, accusing the board of ‘pointing two fingers at agreed procedures’ (Transport Review, 21 June 1985). More than 250 guards, who had walked out, were sacked for breach of contract, and the union called a strike ballot that resulted in a narrow defeat for Knapp and his executive. British Rail then insisted that there must be full acceptance of DOO before the guards were reinstated, leaving the NUR leader to complain that he was in effect being handed a ransom note for the release of his members. However, Knapp was able to turn the tables in the summer of 1989 when there was a serious dispute involving both the decentralization of bargaining and the annual pay award. Having secured a ballot in favour of strike action, Knapp and his colleagues were waiting for final negotiations at the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), when a senior railway personnel manager arrived to say ‘See you in court’. Apparently British Rail were convinced that they would obtain a High Court injunction to halt the strikes, but reckoned without Knapp's own legal advisers. The NUR won the case, the ensuing appeal, and, after a series of one-day stoppages, a ‘without strings’ pay award.

When Knapp became general secretary he was appointed to the general council of the Trades Union Congress and the board of the International Transport Workers' Federation. He was a director of the Trade Union Unit Trust (1984–2001) and Unity Trust Bank (1984–2001, president from 1989). He also cultivated closer links with the train drivers' union, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF). Weighell had not seen eye to eye with the ASLEF leader, Ray Buckton, but in a more fraternal spirit Knapp declared that he would ‘sit down over a pint and talk’ (New Statesman, 25 March 1983). The outcome was the first meeting of the Rail Federation of Unions, a body that it was hoped would be the precursor of a single union for transport workers. ASLEF valued their independence too much to countenance this, but in September 1990 Knapp did preside over the NUR's merger with the National Union of Seamen to form the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union.

Having battled with British Rail in the 1980s, Knapp in the early 1990s found himself up against a government intent on privatizing the railways. It was a policy he implacably opposed, but, despite strong campaigning and court action, he was unable to prevent it. Knapp was successful in the first industrial action of the privatization era, the 1994 signallers' strike. The newly created Railtrack organization handled the issue badly, thus producing a measure of public sympathy. As a former signalman, Knapp was happy with the outcome.

Jimmy Knapp was often dismissed as a dinosaur from a previous age of trade unionism. Tall, with a large frame and characteristic hairstyle and glasses, he looked older than he really was, and was instantly recognizable. So too was his ‘growly Scots accent … and his often ungrammatical delivery of phrases’ (Financial Times, 18 July 1989). But it was a voice that articulated the real concerns of union members. If Weighell was an outward-looking political operator, Knapp was more interested in a transport industry where low pay and long hours were endemic. While unable to prevent the dismantling of British Rail, Knapp displayed a ‘Scottish canniness’ (ibid.), and was at least able to ensure that pension and travel facilities were protected for existing staff. The way that privatization subsequently unravelled gave him no comfort. Neither did the creeping militancy within his organization. Knapp was essentially a pragmatist and a democrat and, for all his left-wing credentials, he, like his predecessor, started to suffer challenges from the left of the union. Nevertheless he easily beat an opponent in 1999 to secure another five-year term of office, one that he was not to see out. A rather private man, he lived in West Wickham, Kent, and enjoyed walking and football. During his fight with colonic cancer he was cared for by Eva-Maria Gertrude Huberta (Eva) Leigh, a German trade-union official for whom he had left his wife in 1990. (The breakup of his marriage was both acrimonious and very public, with tabloid reports of a stand-up row at Ashford Hospital, Kent, where Knapp was waiting for a hernia operation when he was tracked down by Sylvia.) He died at 51 Lawrie Park Road, Sydenham, London, on 13 August 2001, and was survived by Eva and his daughter, Fiona.

Mike Anson

Sources  

T. Gourvish, British Rail, 1974–97: from integration to privatisation (2002) · S. Weighell, On the rails (1983) · P. S. Bagwell, The railwaymen: the history of the National Union of Railwaymen, 2 (1982) · New Statesman (25 March 1983) · Transport Review (21 June 1985) · Modern Railways (Oct 1985) · J. Knapp, ‘RMT: history of a merger’, On the move: essays in labour and transport history, presented to Philip Bagwell, ed. C. Wrigley and J. Shepherd (1991), 252–6 · M. Wallace, Single or return? The history of the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association (1996) · The Independent (10 April 1993) · The Times (14 Aug 2001) · Daily Telegraph (14 Aug 2001) · The Guardian (14 Aug 2001) · The Independent (14 Aug 2001) · The Scotsman (14 Aug 2001) · Financial Times (18 July 1989) · WW (2001) · b. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, documentary recording


Likenesses  

photographs, 1982–98, PA Photos, London · photographs, 1985–94, Rex Features, London · photograph, 1986, Hult. Arch. · D. Jones, photograph, 1988, PA Photos [see illus.] · photographs, 1992–7, Universal Pictorial Press and Agency, London · photograph, 1993, repro. in The Times · photograph, c.1993, repro. in Daily Telegraph · photographs, 1995–7, Camera Press, London · D. McPhee, photograph, repro. in The Guardian · P. Meech, photograph, repro. in The Independent (14 Aug 2001) · photograph, repro. in The Scotsman

Wealth at death  

under £210,000: probate, 30 Jan 2002, CGPLA Eng. & Wales